Robin at Inkstuds was kind enough to have the TCAF panel Frank, Robin, Robert Dayton, Dustin Harbin and I participated in transcribed by Squally Showers. He sent me the transcription a few weeks ago and I finally got around to reading it.
Frankly, I thought this panel sucked, due to nobody in particular’s fault. But I think most panels are meandering and boring despite having intelligent moderators and participants. Maybe I have unrealistic expectations. Anyway, I’m just going to excerpt sections of it here and intersperse it with some new commentary.
I wasn’t sure what the point of the panel was and, reading the transcription now, I don’t think anybody knew what the point was. If the point was to hear Frank speak enthusiastically about Kirby and Steranko, it succeeded and that’s definitely an enjoyable, worthy reason to attend a panel. No joke.
But I fear that the panel was interpreted as a statement that “alternative” cartoonists having affection for “mainstream” comics is noteworthy or unusual or “new” somehow. It’s not. “Alternative” cartoonists bemoaning the abundance of boring, mundane mostly-autobio work is a false feeling to me. There are a lot of autobio “real life” stories, but they’ve always been dwarfed by the pseudo-“mainstream” genre work, even outside of Marvel and DC. Look at Oni Press and Slave Labor Graphics and Antarctic Press and Caliber Comics and Tundra and on and on. Look at the Hernandez Brothers. Look at the wave of alternative comics in the nineties… Zot (which somehow looks both really dated and also pre-Tezuka reprint boom ahead-of-its-time), Bone, Kabuki (don’t forget that Scarab spin-off series!), Madman, THB (fucking Escapo! still lookin good a decade later,) etc.
When I was a student at SVA in the early ’00s I was mostly hanging out with the Meathaus guys and almost all of them were doing “alternative” sci-fi/fantasy/horror/whatever genre comics. Some later did more “alternative”-leaning books for DC or Vertigo. Tomer Hanuka did Bipolar (the last issue of which was essentially a Bizzaro World Aquaman story) and later did the Midnight Mass covers for Vertigo. And, of course, Farel Dalrymple did the great Omega
Man the Unknown series after doing his solo, surreal Pop Gun War series that, aesthetically, is in the post-Marvel House Style world similar to Jim Rugg (Street Angel from Slave Labor). Even Thomas Herpich’s (who I adore) second book was mostly science fiction short stories. Meanwhile the amerimanga artists at Tokyopop and Oni were doing sci-fi/romance/fantasy comics.
There’s been wave after wave of “alternative” comics with ties to “mainstream” comics from the ’80s to today, unaffected by some horrible glut of boring real-life comics that people complain about. I’m not saying that those books don’t exist (they do). I’m saying that I don’t think there’s been a point where one genre was threatening to extinguish the other.
Frank Santoro: Is everyone … I’m going to talk as if everybody knows what I‘m talking about. If you don’t know what I‘m talking about, please interject at any time. But basically, it’s like Kirby of course created Captain America, the Fantastic Four, but then in the ‘70s, when he went back to Marvel, he was doing these really crazy books like 2001, which was essentially based on the movie. But by issue 5 it had nothing to do with the movie. [laughter] What’s really interesting about this comic is … can you scroll ahead a couple of things … it starts off as this crazy battle and—couple of more?—and he goes to The Source which is, if you remember 2001, the black monolith. I call it The Source. [Robin laughs] Can you scroll ahead one more time? He’s coming out of this battle—one more, one more—and then it’s just like it’s all—keep going one more, a little more, a little more. [murmurs of dissent.] Where’s the locker room?
Robin McConnell: Oh, it didn’t make it in.
Frank: Oh bummer. Well, anyway, it’s like a game. It’s basically like, was it Heroesville?
Dash Shaw: Comicsville.
Frank: Comicsville. So it’s like a game. It’s like a virtual reality game. So this whole episode in the beginning is just this game but it’s like to me, it was this treatise on Kirby’s idea of what being a hero is or was. It’s a game. It’s like a sport. I think it was transparent about what all his comics are about. To me, this particular comic wraps it all up, I horde this comic whenever I see it in the bargain bins. A lot of people don’t like this late style, but I think this is the kind of style that I think is carrying on. It’s still, I think, very fresh. It’s not like his old stuff. It’s really different. I think it’s really ahead of the curve and I’m running out of steam.
Robin: When did this come out in comparison to the New Gods stuff?
Frank: This was after the New Gods stuff. So this is post-DC. He got canned from DC. All of his DC books got canceled. Then he went back to Marvel. This was around the time he was doing The Eternals, Devil Dinosaur, the Captain America/Black Panther stuff. Anybody who read that Captain America—Madbomb, those issues. Those are really great. Anybody else want to riff on [inaudible, 2:47]
Robert Dayton: You know what I find really interesting about his 2001 stuff is it’s almost like a mantra. You buy every issue and as a kid you probably feel ripped off, because every issue goes exactly the same. At the end of the issue, a caveman or someone back in time, meets the monolith. The End. Next issue: Same thing. It’s almost like reading Gerald Jablonski’s comics. It becomes like a mantra. It’s just repetition. It’s kind of fascinating reading each and every issue, because even the series, like basically he did a Treasury edition of 2001.
Dash: Yeah, it’s insane.
Robert: Which is insane. It’s massive. It’s huge. It’s gorgeous.
Frank: It’s beautiful. You know those oversized treasuries? Remember those things from the ‘70s? It’s an adaptation of the movie, right?
Frank: But it’s totally different. It’s Kirby-style. It makes no sense.
Dash: He got some production stills from the movie that you can see that he directly swiped from.
Dash: And then he just connected it with like just Kirby stuff.
Frank: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Robert: And Kirby was such a collage artist, too. So in the Treasury edition, there’s all these crazy collages.
Dash: The sequence right after this where it moves into the reality is really nice, too, because the reality turns out to not … I don’t know if …
Frank: Yeah, well see, he’s playing this game.
Dash: This isn’t real. Like sometimes when I …
Frank: Like self-heat chicken dinner? He lives in this giant apartment complex and then it’s just this thing. It’s Mountain Air.
Dash: But that beach scene isn’t real.
Frank: So it’s all Matrix! It’s like Matrix. It’s all … but like pre- … whatever, go ahead. [laughter] Go ahead. Go ahead.
Dash: I was going to say when you flip through a lot of these comics, my first reaction is these are way too wordy. I don’t know. Do you have that feeling?
Robin: They’re wordy, but …
Dash: But then in this sequence, you flip through it and you think that “This is actually real,” but all of the text is about how none of this, “This isn’t a real seascape” and everything like that. It’s a juxtaposition.
Robin: Do you find this is one of the more Kirby doing a better job of mixing the two.
Dash: Well, he wrote these, too.
Robin: Yeah, but that’s what I’m saying. Sometimes the story isn’t as strong as the art.
Frank: Well, I think the story is equally as strong as the art. I mean … go ahead.
Dash: Well, I don’t think he would do this the Marvel style if he was doing it for himself. Right?
Dustin Harbin: I would have thought with the wordiness that this was in the Marvel style. Because the story looks so clear with that page layout and then all these words were kind of scotch taped on top of it. Which is kind of the Marvel style …
Frank: Well, he wrote, all of Kirby’s stuff, you look at the originals in like the Kirby Collector or whatever, all of his stuff, he has all of the dialogue written in the sides or the back and then Stan or whomever just kind of cleaned it up a little bit. So I think that he’s still doing it in that style, in that way, because I think Mike Royer edited these also, so he helped clean them up. But for me, this was a real gateway comic—just to go back to the main thrust of the panel. It’s like, I was really into Kirby but this was way out there. I didn’t like his ‘70s style. I thought it was really wack and I hated it for a long time. It took me a long time to get into it. But to me, this starts heading into this alternate world. I don’t want to say alternative comics, but it’s just so different from what he had been doing for the 20 years previous that, like I feel like this is what ends up influencing the current generation. So …
It’s hard to read this and not think of Mazzucchelli, both since Asterios Polyp came out recently and he’s one of the kings of the “mainstream”/”alternative” fusion artists. Polyp has some stellar examples of this. My favorite sequence in the book is when Polyp, the “paper architect,” builds a tree house. I told Mazz I loved this scene and he said: “Kirby.”
Or how about this Steranko-esque film still-like panel of Asterios and Hana at the beach, pausing in silhouette, below. I like the melodrama of it. It’s ballsy.
Frank: The Escape Artist. Yeah, so Steranko, after Kirby—Kirby was a big deal in the ’60s, but then in the late ‘60s, there was this guy who was really kind of like the new regime was Jim Steranko, James Steranko. He took Kirby’s style and made it really design-y and really modern.
Robin: Deco pop, almost.
Frank: Deco pop is a good way of describing it. This particular story on the right, this is Bernie Krigstein from the late ‘50s and this is a Steranko story from the early ‘70s and a horror comic from Marvel. Can we click ahead one? And you can see he’s doing all these really wacky layouts and stuff like that. It’s not very … like this face is very Kirby to me and a lot of the figures are very Kirby, but as Dash likes to point out if you think Kirby’s anatomy is messed up, Steranko’s is even more messed up. He’s just doing it. So a lot of these figures are really cut-out figures and stuff. But he’s doing a lot of things with time that hearken back to what Krigstein was doing in the ‘50s.
Dash: The Krigstein comic is “The Master Race,” that Spiegelman likes so much to talk about. He did an article in The New Yorker about it.
Robin: Yeah. I think he first did an essay back in [inaudible, 11:14]
Frank: See, this is the subway going by and all the figures going by fast. He’s breaking up the time like way differently. I mean, this is ’59 …
Robin: This is earlier than that.
Dash: I want to hear Frank … you called this cinematic before, those panels. I’ve heard that used a lot. I don’t know if you used it.
Frank: Did I say that?
Dash: Why do you think people call those kind of panels, tall …
Frank: Oh, the tall panels. Because it breaks up the time differently. I think it’s a way of like Kirby is all about it’s not instantaneous moment to moment. It’s more like every ten seconds or something. You see the punch, then you see the reaction. But he’s doing every … this is like five seconds or whatever. This is like an instantaneous thing. Cinematic … I think so, but it’s just more like … Steranko’s cinematic in the sense of his framing, I think. His framing is way more …
Dash: If you scrolled, those long horizontal things like this.
Frank: Oh this. Yeah. Well, I think that’s cinematic because in the late ‘60s, everybody went panorama in the ‘60s, so it’s like your eye, I think, is going across these panels.
Robin: It’s kind of like the whole Orson Welles …
Frank: Deep focus.
Robin: That long …
Robert: The pan. You know what I was thinking? I was looking at these and speaking of cinematic, I was really thinking that Steranko’s a lot like Brian De Palma. That’s because both De Palma and both Steranko, for a lot of reasons, actually, they both use a lot of genre tropes. Like this is an old dark house kind of story. Also, De Palma would always make you conscious that you were watching a film and I think Steranko makes you really conscious that you were reading a comic. That’s what the framing—I mean, De Palma would use a lot of split screen and you see the way things are divided up here. Also, the way that they acknowledged the old masters: Steranko acknowledging Krigstein and Kirby and De Palma acknowledging Hitchcock, most especially.
Something that Jeet Heer touched on previously on CC, and was also asked at the TCAF panel, was how necessary it is for readers to track or be interested in artist’s influences.
Audience member: [inaudible, 45:45-] I mean, there is value to knowing stuff. It’s okay, but if you just want pleasure and it doesn’t matter to you and you’re getting the pleasure and something’s hitting the pleasure button and you don’t know that it’s just a third generation knockoff, then it’s okay. At the same time, if you want to be an informed reader … [continues]
Dash: I think if you’re coming to this panel, you want to be an informed reader.
Audience member: … reading the best work …
Robin: The main thing is you enjoy comics. Let’s see what that person enjoyed.
Robert: If you like this, you might like this.
Robin: That’s exactly it. Without being commercial thing like DC’s, “You like Watchmen, here’s the next thing to read.” You like Brandon Graham? Read Moebius, you’ll love it if you haven’t read Moebius. That’s kind of the conduct of people who love this stuff and reading it is rather important. There are so many comics to read, and people don’t really know that. And good luck at finding this stuff for an affordable except for the horrible Incal reprints that are re-colored.
Personally, I don’t think it’s necessary for readers to be informed about this stuff. It’s only of interest to people who care. But, I think the big “trickle down” effect IS interesting. I care. Not for an “I know who’s ripping off of who! Ha ha!” annoying reason, but because it’s telling a wider story about the psychology of artists. If you’re someone who’s interested in that, it’s worth tracking what was coming out when, or who was reading what when, because the “trickle down” effect over time is more exciting, to me, than holding a romantic belief that everyone’s working in a vacuum devoid of influences. All of the artists struggling to reach that “vacuum”/influence-less state are revealing in their own way.
Obviously, I don’t think people should feel that artists are handed a menu of what came before them and starting ordering things (“I’ll have a little bit of Kirby sprinkled with Sol Lewitt, please”), and I don’t think people should feel artists are necessarily having a conversation with other artists exclusively (“Ware did this, so I went the other way.”) The motivations are a tangled web encompassing a million things. It’s the whole psychology of the person. If you’re happy never reaching a conclusion, just bouncing around reading comics history or whatever, then it’s a journey worth making. Or at least a panel worth attending.
Huge thanks to Robin again and Squally Showers, Robert Dayton, Dustin Harbin and Frank.
Here’s a random Gray Morrow Edge of Chaos spread, because it rules. Show n tell.